The metaphor that was so popular in General Conference just a few years ago resurfaced again, but in a surprising way. A week ago, when I was meeting with my Jane Austen discussion group, one of the participants who was raised in a conservative Catholic home, but is now mainline protestant, referred to the analogy of religion as a ship. She used the analogy completely differently than we heard it used in General Conference. She said that religion is a ship that takes you to a new shore, in a new place, and then you are there. The new land is where you live the teachings of Jesus. The ship brought you there, but you don’t stay on the ship. You basically “graduate” from the ship and go forth to live and work among all of humanity, trying your best to live up to the ideals He preached. The ship is no longer necessary.
This parallels a sentiment my grandparents (who were protestants, not Mormons) once shared, that Church is for children. A schoolbus would come by to pick up the children to take them to Church, but parents often didn’t go because they already “got it.” They were Christians. They didn’t need the exact same instruction over and over for the rest of their lives. They needed to just try to live a moral life using the teachings they already had.
In Buddhism there are two sayings that are along these same lines of thinking:
- “If you meet the Buddha in the road, kill the Buddha.” This saying means that you should not revere and idolize the teacher; you should live the teachings. Enlightenment comes from within, not from external sources.
- “I am a finger pointing to the moon. Don’t look at me; look at the moon.” This is a saying attributed to Buddha in which he is saying he is just a teacher, but should not be worshipped or idolized. Rather we should look at the teaching, not the teacher. Just as the pointing finger guides us to the moon, but is not glorious like the moon, the teacher might bring us to enlightenment, but the teacher is not the teaching.
We recently returned from a trip to Egypt. Because it is such an iconic part of the Egypt tourist experience, we booked a Nile cruise. We had just seen Death on the Nile, and I was picturing rocking up at amazing Egyptian temples, taking our time walking through with our guide explaining what we were seeing, and then sauntering back on board as the sun setted over the lazy Nile waters. These are fairly small ships with maybe 80 passengers. Tour groups were arranged through local tour companies, not the ships; some people were touring in groups of twenty or thirty. Others, like us, just shared a single guide with one other passenger. We weren’t excited about being at the sites with 80 other people all at once because it’s just harder to take pictures, to see what you want to see, etc., but this class of ship was much better than some of the other options. It’s possible to cruise one a single-sail felucca and sleep on the deck under the stars, for example, but it also seemed a little like I’m-too-old-for-that.
Imagine our surprise when we discovered that ALL the ships are on the same schedule, and they all dock together. We weren’t just one ship docking and going to see the amazing sites. We were nested between other similarly sized ships, four or five ships deep, and both behind and in front of our ships were more ships similarly nested, so now we were among hundreds of passengers from a dozen ships, all pouring into the sites at the exact same time. As you can imagine, that meant standing shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other tourists trying to take the exact same picture of the exact same hieroglyph. In case you were wondering, this was nothing like the cruise in Death on the Nile. It was more like going to a concert, in a bad way, with more risk of being trampled than sexy dancing with Armie Hammer or delightful amuse-bouches with Hercule Piorot.
Our guide said that if we come back, he recommends skipping the Nile cruise and staying in hotels instead, which are roomier and have nice pools, using a hired car to see the sites instead, because he knows the ship schedules and would time it so you can actually hear him speak and take the pictures you want to take, and wander the site, really feeling like you can experience it. I would definitely do it that way in future.
But it got me thinking back to that ship analogy. If you had told teenage me that the Good Ship Zion was going to be nestling with a bunch of Evangelical churches and an occasional Catholic church, nearly indistinguishable in terms of our experience, and that this was how it would be for the rest of my adult life, I would have thought you were joking. If you had said that meetings would be hard to distinguish from conservative political rallies, I would never have believed it. Yet here we are.
Maybe that’s because when I was young, Church was still teaching me things I didn’t know. As an adult, since I now know what Jesus taught, I am left to evaluate the Church in terms of its alignment with those teachings, or its misalignment. I can judge what is moral and what is not because I was taught in my youth.
Back to the boat, though, why would anyone stay in a boat indefinitely? I enjoy sailing as much as the next person, but whenever you get in any vehicle, the point isn’t to stay in the vehicle forever, but to go somewhere. You don’t drive to church on Sunday and sit in your car in the parking lot. The only reasons I can think of to stay in a boat long-term are 1) a Covid outbreak on your cruise ship, which then descends into a Lord of the Flies scenario, or 2) Noah’s Ark, which basically starts as a Lord of the Flies (and all other animals) scenario. In the first case, you must stay aboard to quarantine, to protect others from contamination by you, and in the second, you can’t leave because you will drown since there’s no land above water (nevermind that the story isn’t historically accurate, but taking the story at face value for the metaphor it is).
It’s this second reason that I think Church leaders (and conservatives in general) seem to be concerned about, the idea that leaving the boat equals danger and personal contamination, that we, as disciples of Christ, are too weak to survive. We can’t swim on our own. While there’s value in belonging to a community of supportive believers, all striving to do our best, we are in fact supposed to also interact with the world around us. The idea that everything outside of the boat (or Church) is scary and bad is no way to be a Christian. If you’re only interacting with other Christians, you’ve kind of missed the point. Right?
- Do you think the Church was always “nested” with other high demand conservative religions or do you see this as a shift due to increased polarization?
- Do you think the analogy of a ship that never reaches shore is a good analogy or not?
- Do you like the version of the ship analogy that my friend said is more common in her experience?
- Is Church for children? Do we outgrow it? Or do we need it because of the community, so long as that community is one we want to belong to?